What Can We Reasonably Hope For?

A Millennium Symposium

Copyright (c) 1998 First Things 99 (Januray 2000): 24-25.

[Symposium Contents]

Paul J. Griffiths

To be human is to acquire and maintain a habit of being. Such acquisition and maintenance requires, in turn, institutional forms. And at the end of the second millennium there are, worldwide, only three institutional forms through which enough power flows to provide translocal habits of being: nation-states, corporations, and churches. A millennium ago, as the water clocks and the candles marked the turn of the era, two of these (nation-states and corporations) were either altogether absent or utterly insignificant. The churches, though, were then very much present and in most ways dominant; they were the principal donors of habits of being.

But as the silicon-controlled computer clocks mark the beginning of Y2K, things are different. The churches, all of them, are at the margins. The world’s intellectual life goes on without them, in universities resting comfortably in the arms of the corporations and nation-states that fund them; and its political life goes on without them, formed by the demands of the market and the calculations of realpolitik. Concomitantly and inevitably, the forces giving us our habits of being are now primarily economic and secondarily political: we have become consumers who occasionally think of ourselves as citizens. Any tattered remnants of religious habits of being are now subservient to (indeed, usually understood precisely in terms of) habits of consumption.

This means that nation-states and corporations are now the principal determinants of everyone’s character and action. The Church (speaking now of the Catholic Church) has always understood the deep importance of institutional forms that carry culture translocally; it is, after all, itself one of them. It should, then, care deeply about the situation we’re in, and should be reading the signs of the times with close and prayerful attention, attending with the wisdom of a serpent and the innocence of a dove in an effort to see where things are moving and how to shape them into conformity with the alien designs of God.

The first sign of the times is that the influence and significance of nation-states is declining while that of corporations is advancing. Many transnational corporations now have larger budgets than all but the largest of nations; and some, like the Korean conglomerate Daewoo, have larger loads of debt than all but the most heavily laden nations. National politics is, to an increasing extent, subject to the needs and demands of corporations without national identity or loyalty. Nation-states are dissolving themselves into economically motivated transnational groups, as in the case of the European Union.

As the third millennium continues, our habits of being will increasingly be formed principally by corporate forces, not national ones. Nation-states will become parasites upon corporations, subservient to the flow of capital and to the institutional forms produced by that flow. And we will come to understand ourselves primarily not as Americans or Japanese or Indonesians (much less as Christians or Buddhists or Muslims—that option is scarcely available now), but as consumers of the products of the Microsoft Corporation, or General Motors, or Sony.

This is not a comfortable development for the churches. No church—and certainly not the Catholic Church—can be happy that the principal donors of habits of being are corporations, institutions ordered by appetite. But here there is another, more hopeful sign of the times. It seems, increasingly, that the human heart remains unsatisfied with the rewards of appetite sated, or even with the passions of appetite kindled. Something more is always wanted, something deeper and broader and longer-lasting, and as the possibility of finding this something in citizenship fades, and as the bankruptcy and corruption of the corporate promise begins slowly to become evident, people turn again to the churches, and with renewed passion. And so we have resurgent Islam across the world, the explosive growth of Christianity in much of Africa and parts of East Asia, and the increasing evidence of inchoate desires on the part even of jaded and sophisticated European and American Catholic Christians for a habit of being that is truly Catholic, truly all-embracing.

This means that the issue for the churches, as the third millennium advances, will be to find ways to offer to their faithful just such all-embracing habits of being. This will mean, among other things, a depth of commitment to learning from one another not so far evident. Catholic Christians, for example, have much to learn from Muslims about (for instance) the senses in which the American experiment of separating church from state is a Trojan horse from which the corrosively destructive forces of the transnational corporation inevitably burst forth. Tibetan Buddhists in exile have much to learn from Jews about what it is like to attempt survival as a diaspora people. The churches must, if they are to survive as anything other than decorative appendages to consumerist capitalism, if they are to provide anything more than the kind of formation that permits their members to fill in the religious preference box on the census form, look away from the nation-state, already effectively in history’s dustbin, away from the corporation, the principal power of this present age, and toward one another, the only institutional forms that offer a hope of resistance.

A good beginning could be made by developing serious discussions among Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant Christians, Muslims, and believing Jews about how best to offer to the faithful a catechesis of resistance and contradiction so that they might resist the demonic powers abroad in the world as the millennium begins. If this is not done, the idolatry and violence whose proliferation has soaked the last century of the second millennium in blood will proliferate still further in the third, for there will be nowhere to turn for a habit of being that could act as a sign of contradiction.

Paul J. Griffiths is Professor of the Philosophy of Religions in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.